Millions Marching: From Loneliness to Communion

A few years ago I found myself in an airport terminal with time to spare before boarding my flight. Ambling among the gates, I stopped to peruse a shelf of paperbacks until The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan caught my eye. Keegan delivered an address by the same name at her graduation from Yale in 2012; she died tragically five days later in a car crash. I stood there in Hudson News and read something from Keegan’s title essay that has remained with me: “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life… It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I flipped through the collection of essays, moved for this young woman, her insight, her honesty, her death. I returned the book to the shelf of paperbacks and headed to my gate.  I was traveling alone, but I felt less lonely for having encountered Marina Keegan.

On Saturday, millions of people around the globe joined in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. and its sister marches. The march of more than 60,000 that I attended in Atlanta was among the most joyful events I can recall. From the packed train cars on the way to the march to the packed train cars home, a spirit of gentleness, strength, and fierce beauty abounded. Women and men high-fived and hugged police officers, who high-fived and hugged back. Wheelchairs and baby carriages were pushed with care and deference, marchers laughed and smiled easily between unwavering calls for justice and equality across our society.

Without question, the inauguration of Donald Trump as president was the catalyst for these marches. The marches, though, surpassed opposition to a leader, or a policy, or a political party. These marches may have started with people standing together against something, but they became about standing together. Period. Millions of us experienced the opposite of loneliness last Saturday. It was communion – a sudden awareness of living in a web of relationships of solidarity and care – and it gave birth to hope. Whenever we feel the opposite of loneliness, we are given the chance to hope.

Everyone needs this communion. Its alternative is isolation, and in isolation there is only despair. We isolate ourselves in many ways: through the wrongs that we commit and the wrongs that we don’t speak out against. Through belief that we have been abandoned by God and by those around us. By failing to see that we are capable of relationships, that the world needs us, our gifts, and our participation in the whole web of things. Perhaps especially, we isolate ourselves through our own uncompromising rigidity.

As a person unreasonably privileged by our society, I can almost always opt into things or stand back in judgment of them without fear of personal consequence. Sadly, I exercise the option of judgment all the time. Unless I know that the march will turn out a certain way, I won’t attend. Unless I agree with everything it’s about, I conscientiously object. If I don’t totally understand or control my surroundings, I take my proverbial toys and go home. I’ve done it countless times.

And yet the invitation remains – even for the privileged like me – not to be alone. To choose hope. To move boldly from the dry sand of isolation into the waters of communion. On Saturday I found out, as millions of others did, that the water is fine. In fact, rather than losing ourselves in this ocean of communion, we found ourselves in hope.

Marina Keegan put her finger on the thing that each of us needs, wise well beyond her 22 years. The opposite of loneliness is communion and it’s what I want in life, too. I don’t just want it for myself; when I taste this communion, I want to invite other people in. I don’t want to harbor hate, or prejudice, or judgment anymore. I don’t want to hold unreasonable power at the expense of those who welcomed me to march alongside them on Saturday, and those who have been marching for generations. And so I will continue to act, and I will invite others to do the same.

I had my deepest hope confirmed this weekend. None of us has to be alone. Women all around the globe, throngs of beautifully diverse people of every race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion – richly human people – were saying the same thing to one another, including the people to whom society gives power, like me: let go of judgment, hate, exclusion, isolation and despair. Grab a sign and jump in. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the only thing there is. Believe me: the water’s fine.

This article by Steve Nicholson, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.



The Wounded Church: Pro-Life and Social Justice Catholics Remain Divided

If there has been one overused line in the past few weeks, it’s the trope: “The election taught us…”

We didn’t need this election to teach us that our country is polarized or that there is no “Catholic vote.” As commentators have said for years, political polarization shapes the Catholic electorate as much as the general electorate: there is no “Catholic vote,” but rather a “conservative Catholic vote” and a “liberal Catholic vote.”

For decades, the US Church electorate has been divided between “pro-life” and “social justice” camps. For “pro-life” Catholics, abortion defines their political participation, because abortion touches upon the key issue of respect for life. “Social justice” Catholics are interested in a broad range of issues stemming from their commitment to protecting the human person against violations of their rights.

Stated thusly, the two camps seem to have a great deal in common. But pro-life and social justice Catholics tend to be distinguished not just by the policies they emphasize, but by their partisan preferences. Pro-life Catholics have found a home in the GOP, and social justice Catholics tend to be Democrats. The two groups, in other words, have allowed themselves to be defined by our two-party system.

There is no question that the two parties have divvied up the Catholic vote, as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego noted recently:

“The central issues of Catholic social teaching that our society faces at the present moment really bifurcate the partisan divide in our nation,” said McElroy. “The Democratic Party emphasizes certain of those teachings and embodies them more fully, and the Republican Party embodies others. Because political leaders are forced into those partisan molds, particularly during partisan campaigns, they often don’t reflect the spectrum of Catholic social teaching to a great degree.”

This division was starkly illustrated by the platforms of the vice-presidential candidates. While they were both strongly influenced by Catholicism, it seemed to be their political ideologies that determined which teachings of the Church they did – and did not – embrace.

A common argument for distinguishing the two sets of issues is to treat opposition to abortion as a non-negotiable principle, and to see most policy issues related to social justice as negotiable applications of principles.

The trouble is, such arguments tend to sharply divide principles from applications, as though principles were Platonic abstractions floating in the ether with no purchase on reality, and the applications mere observations with little theoretical foundation. It then becomes hard to see how our practice and theory mutually influence one another.

But it has always been the Catholic tradition that political reflection sits squarely between theory and practice. As the Jesuit Social Research Institute notes, Catholic Social Teaching has to be both “organic and systematic,” so as to take stock of “social realities, ethical principles, and application of those principles to current circumstances.”

So what do we gain from accepting the balkanization of the U.S. Church?

Pragmatically, pro-life and social justice interest groups deprive themselves of key allies when they don’t see their causes as mutually related.

Intellectually, both “sides” deprive themselves of the full significance of their own arguments when they treat their causes as isolated policy positions.

Most importantly, treating life and social justice issues as separate has wounded the US Church. Reconciliation between the life and social justice movements needs to be a high priority for the Church in the coming years. In the months to come, most Americans will likely go back to ignoring politics. Yet much rides on keeping citizens engaged beyond  “the tired quadrennial debate about whom we can vote for.” Catholics must hold a Trump presidency to its espoused pro-life values, and work towards long-term reconciliation, not short-term goals.

Taking the long view, the Catholic Church cannot depend upon the parties as a credible engine for turning our deepest faith commitments into policy. The parties have gotten us into this mess and are unlikely to get us out of it. Catholics and all people of good will must become better at articulating the basis for what we believe and how it can translate into a better life for all peoples. This will require pulling away from political modes of thought and recovering yet again what it means to be Christian in the first place.

Indeed, when I wrote about being Catholic and Democrat or Catholic and Republican this past summer, the ensuing debate between our readers revealed the misunderstanding, pain and sadly even hate between the two camps. Reconciliation between pro-life and social-justice Catholics will not be easy. It is a long process that requires building trust, becoming open to criticism, and even being willing to criticize ourselves in the pursuit of love-guided justice. That road will not be easy, but it is more necessary than ever to walk down it.

Yes, there are liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics. But at a time when politics is such a mess, we must pull away from ideological attachments and see ourselves as Catholics. And we must do this not to deny but to affirm the nobility and necessity of politics.

This article by Bill McCormick, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.

Real Parents

You’re not my real parents.

I said that to them at least once in my life. I followed the comment by running away from home, a slammed door followed by a short jaunt down Lola Drive with my blankee tied up on a yard stick and filled with GI Joe action figures (essential to survival). Five houses down, I realized my mistake and headed back. I pulled up a chair at the dinner table and ate a delicious meal that my parents had provided. They forgave me and loved me through the ordeal, just like “real” parents do.

I’m fairly sure every adopted kid has thought or said the same thing to their parents. It’s still a little confusing, after all, knowing that the people who raised me aren’t the people who made me. By ‘made,’ of course, I mean ‘had sex,’ and then one of them dealt with me explicitly for the next nine months. And both of them (biological mom and dad), after having made me, have probably dealt with the reality of their flesh and blood out there in the world, far removed from them for important, challenging reasons.


Simone Biles and I have at least three things in common – we were/are both gymnasts, we are Catholic, and we are adopted. People tend to understand the gymnast and the Catholic thing – sports and faith. Easy. But the adopted thing? Whose kid is this really?

A few days ago, Al Trautwig made (and, to his credit, later apologized for) an awkward, if not offensive, comment about the Olympic champion gymnast and her parentage.  “They may be mom and dad, but they are NOT her parents,” Al tweeted.

Then, who are they?


From what I’ve read, Simone’s biological mother Shannon struggled with a drug addiction that left her unable to care for her four children. Shannon’s father Roland (Simone’s biological grandfather) and his wife Nellie took charge, eventually adopting Simone and her little sister. Simone was four years old.

Now 19, Simone has seen Ronald and Nellie looking on from the stands for the entirety of her gymnastics career, which has just recently produced Olympic gold. Ronald and Nellie have driven Simone to early morning workouts, provided an education, fed her, clothed her, cheered her on in her greatest successes and held her close when she lost, or was injured, or was tired and wanted to quit. They gave her faith. They raised her. They are her parents. 1

Unless we want to think of parents in some other way. But I don’t think we can. Not really. The gift of life that parents provide doesn’t end when the child is just out of the womb. The gift extends well beyond first moments and into the flashes of life that parents provide their children each and every day. Parents who stick around for that are real parents. Who love without concern of being loved. Who step up when the kid needs it. Who fly halfway around the world to cheer their kid on. Who watch their daughter win Olympic gold.

It’s not always easy, and sometimes we end up with parents different from the ones who ‘made’ us. But let’s not think that biological connection is the only thing that makes a parent real.


(1) Imagine telling Joseph that he wasn’t Jesus’ father. Imagine telling Joseph that after all those years wiping baby Jesus’ butt, holding him during bouts with the stomach flu, working to put food on the table, teaching him to pray, to work hard, to pick up after himself, to be a good man and a good Jew, he wasn’t really Jesus’ father. The Christian tradition holds that Joseph is the foster father to Jesus, but I don’t think a qualifier is necessary. Joseph did just what real fathers do: he was there for everything until he couldn’t be there anymore.

This article by Eric Immel, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.

Prayer During Tragedy

Events in our national life are often sadly familiar. That is certainly true of the Orlando shootings this past weekend. Mass violence. Contentious claims about Islam and domestic terrorism. The nation briefly rallying in solidarity. Prayers, anguish, and calls for change. Probable failure to address the root causes. An almost inevitable repetition in the near future.

What is also becoming familiar, however, is a certain reaction to this reaction, especially the prayer. Within hours of the attack, I saw memes on Facebook like the phrase “Pray for America” with the “Pray” crossed out and the words “Policy Change” written beneath.

This is not a wholly new phenomenon. “Prayer shaming” was a prominent element of the reaction to the San Bernardino shootings in December 2015. Of all the things to capture our national attention in the wake of disaster, it was prayer and its efficacy. Read More

The Mystery in the Mundane

In Madrid we live in apartment flats (pisos) and our house chapel is a converted bedroom – a rather small bedroom. For our community of fifteen fully grown Jesuits, it can be a tight fit. The space is about twice as long as it is wide, so we sit on a bench against one of the longer walls, leaving just enough room for the presiding priest to face us from the other side of a narrow altar. If you’ve ever wondered why the disciples are all on one side of the table in Da Vinci’s Last Supper, here’s a possible explanation: perhaps they were dining in someone’s bedroom.

Most people experience the liturgy from a distance, noticing arms raised and lowered, the mixing of water and wine, the shuffle of plates, cups, and candles. For most people, everything happens somewhere up there. In our chapel there is no up there, no long processions, no smoke and mirrors; the back row is the front row and you can’t help but notice every last detail. It all happens, quite literally, right before your eyes. I’ve basically memorized the nervous tics of each presiders’ hands, their habits of turning pages, breaking bread, pouring wine.

I, like many people, normally adopt a ‘safe-distance’ approach to the sacraments — hoping to experience God at my own pace and on my own terms — so, at first, this bedroom-chapel arrangement was a little jarring. What had been a public ritual celebrated in big cavernous churches, had become an intimate act, a personal experience — a fitting preparation, I suppose, for my own ordination. What was once a kind of magic has become, by grace, mundane.


I recently went to Rome and visited the mother church of the Jesuits, the Gesu. Let me assure you — it’s one mother of a church. Baroque exuberance at its best, the Gesu is overwhelmingly beautiful without falling, as so much baroque art does, into the hopelessly gaudy. This church is flooded with the full force of the Ignatian imagination, the greater glory of God crammed into every last detail. I imagine the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would marvel at it all — a temple turned playground where the eye can’t help but tumble from one thing to the next, the whole church charged with the grandeur of God, angels and saints flaming out all over the place.

My early liturgical experiences took place in moldy gymnasiums that smelled of adolescent boys and industrial grade disinfectant – first at my Catholic high school and later as a volunteer at Central Juvenile Hall in downtown LA. I recalled those gym-masses as I stood in the Gesu and remembered something I once heard one of those jail priests say, trying to encourage reluctant kids to come forward for communion or a blessing: “Sometimes we fear this moment because we think it’s too sacred for us, but the greater risk is forgetting that it’s also a meal where all are wanted and everyone welcomed.”

There is no risk, in the Gesu church, of forgetting that what happens there is sacred. There is greater risk of forgetting that what we memorialize there was a simple meal – a last supper for a soon to be convict. In that great stone church, dedicated to the name of Jesus, we gather to consecrate our most humble gifts and we pray that they become his body and blood. At the center of all that polished marble we are moved most by a bit of bread and a cup of wine.

In one corner of the church a large painting hides a silver statue of Ignatius – a real ‘man of steel’. Every afternoon a baroque mechanism (fabulously called a ‘conversion machine’) scrolls away the painting, dramatically revealing the statue behind – it’s basically the 17th century equivalent of a gif. Watching the whole show unfold it struck me that we also risk forgetting that Ignatius, like Christ, like us, was human. Fleshy and fallen, by many measures, a failure.


Back in Madrid one of our beloved elder Jesuits made us smile recently during a daily liturgy by absentmindedly taking the elevation of the host as a convenient time to simultaneously glance at his watch. It wasn’t a grave crime, just the liturgical pragmatism of a septuagenarian priest saying mass in a converted bedroom. He probably needed to take a pill at a certain hour, something that – through him, with him, and in him – he didn’t want to forget.

This same priest began showing signs of Parkinson’s earlier this year. His hands shake when he’s not focused. I watch them move through the liturgy like I’d watch my mother’s hands in the kitchen as a kid, like I’d watch the hands of a woodworker or a calligrapher. They know well the pages, the tabs, the ribbons, the simple rhythm of it all. That he can recite the prayers while checking the time is actually a kind of proof of faithfulness – if not attentiveness – and even his liturgical blunders are a memorial of grace.

Watching his hands I am reminded of how the sacred is poured out in frailty, how the mundane is made holy in fidelity. In a bedroom chapel, a jailhouse gym, or the Gesu church, in all things and in every moment, it’s good to remember that we are all held together by a few trembling hands and a little holy communion.

This article by Brendan Busse, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


10 Ways to Make Meaningful Connections in the Digital Age

Smartphones are supposedly ruining our lives and making us incapable of having real conversations. But phones, like other modern means of communication, are tools. We can surely misuse them, but we can also use them to create meaningful connection. Here are ten ways:

1) Practice “relationship life support” — but don’t be afraid to unfollow or unfriend

Writing “Happy birthday!” on a friend’s wall, liking someone’s pic on Instagram, or retweeting a friend’s witty remark are forms of relationship life support. While this communication is generally not deep, it can at least help to keep a relationship alive.

That being said, sometimes relationships shouldn’t be continued. I probably don’t need to see updates about my fifth grade acquaintance I will never meet again. Unfriending and unfollowing can allow me to have the mental bandwidth to invest in more meaningful relationships.

2) Hide behind a screen to get over your fears

The anonymity of the net creates trolls and Yik Yak abuse, but it can also be used for good. Recently, I have been using a site to connect with language tutors for one-on-one Skype sessions. Exactly because they are people I will never meet in person, I don’t care what I sound like. I end up getting great practice in the language and meeting cool people at the same time.

Maybe you have some nerdy passion that your in-person friends don’t share? The internet was meant for connecting people who share common interests. Read More